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Brief summary of Christianity

Consolidation of Christianity
and its later fragmentation

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1st to 4th century CE: Consolidation of Christianity:

As noted elsewhere, Jewish Christians -- the original group within the primitive Christian movement -- was almost wiped out by the Roman Army in its attack on Jerusalem in 70 CE. The survivors were scattered.

Pauline Christianity, and its successor Proto-Christianity, flourished throughout the Roman Empire in spite of intermittent persecutions. The attacks were primarily triggered by the refusal by many Christians to contribute sacrifices at the state Pagan temples. The Empire regarded this activity as an important civic duty for every citizen, but was viewed as the ultimate sacrilege by many Christians.

With the issuance of the Edict of Toleration at Milan in 313 CE, the Roman Empire recognized Pauline Christianity as a valid religion. Persecution ceased and Christianity became tolerated. Three generations later, circa 387 CE, Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. Persecutions began again; this time Christians were the perpetrators and Pagans the victims.

The new state religion, with the help of the Roman Empire, persecuted the remnants of Gnostic Christianity. The Gnostics' many Gospels, including the Gospel of Thomas, and many dozens of other writings were suppressed. Gnostic Christianity was driven underground and almost wiped out. A few survived the prosecution. At the present time it is experiencing rapid growth.

With the disappearance of Jewish Christianity and Gnostic Christianity, Christianity was once more consolidated into a single group. Church authority became concentrated among the five bishops or patriarchs located in Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome. 

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Subsequent fragmentation of Christianity:

A unified Christianity continued for a few centuries, but then gradually disintegrated:

bullet 7th century CE: Islam: With the expansion of Islam throughout the Middle East, church power became concentrated in Constantinople and Rome. These two Christian centers gradually drifted apart from each other in their beliefs and practices.
bullet 11th century CE: Christian schism: In 1054 CE, a formal split occurred between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Their leaders excommunicated each other. The split remains in effect today, although the mutual excommunication has been revoked. Efforts are being made to heal the divide, but little progress has resulted.
bullet16th Century: Protestant Reformation: This was a time of great turmoil within Christianity. In Europe, John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Ulrich Zwingli broke from the Roman Catholic Church to form separate Protestant Christian faith groups. They promoted the concepts of:

bullet Salvation by the grace of God, rather than through church sacraments.
bullet Greater individual freedom of belief.
bullet The priesthood of all believers; no priest or other intermediary was needed between believers and God.
bullet Close integration of church and state.
bullet Reliance on the Bible alone, with much less attention paid to church tradition.

Radical Reformation: Some additional religious reformers took these beliefs to a logical conclusion; they preached that the believers should form "free churches." These were quite different from both the Catholic Church and  the highly organized Protestant state churches. Members met in each other's homes, much like the early Jesus Movement. Because they believed that baptism should be restricted to adults, they were called Anabaptists.

Church of England: Also during the 16th century, the Church of England split from the Roman Catholic Church. The schism is often blamed on the pope's refusal to give the king a divorce, and the king's incessant drive to produce a male heir. His various wives produced only girls and one sickly male child. Medical science was in a primitive state at the time, and doctors did not realize that the gender of a child is determined by the sex of the male's sperm. That is, the king himself was responsible for a string of girls.

In reality, the split was caused more by various English political trends, religious changes, and dissatisfaction with the Papal Curia than by the lack of a divorce decree. Over time, the Church of England grew to become the worldwide Anglican Communion.

bullet 17th century to now: Protestant denominations experienced further schisms in later centuries to produce the over 1,000 Christian denominations and sects in the U.S. and Canada today. Some of these schisms was caused by disagreement over the morality of human slavery. One example was the Southern Baptist Conference. They separated from the national body because of the former's desire to accept slave owners as members.

Starting in the late 19th century, many splits were triggered by a conflict between modernist interpretation of the Bible and fundamentalist beliefs. In recent years, the main stressor involves homosexuals as members, the ordination of gay clergy, and ordination of women.

Many of these faith groups believe that their group, alone, is the true successor to Jesus' teachings and the faith that was "... once delivered unto the saints." (Jude 1:3). This presents a logical dilemma. Since the demoninations teach a range of beliefs, only a maximum of one denomination can be free of error.

Copyrighted 2009 & 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
First posted: 2009-MAR-24
Last updated 2010-JUL-07

Author: B.A. Robinson

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